Dan Bozzuto on Effective Teaching, Learning & Standardized Tests: Student Success Podcast no. 27

Dan Bozzuto explores the difficulties to replicate great teachers, the inherent problems with standardized testing, and some great ideas on how to address both.

Part 1/2, featuring Dan Bozzuto, award winning educator and inspired classroom teacher. Dan considers my question, “are good teachers replicable?” which takes him to standardized tests and other obstacles to student learning, including to question the very purpose of modern education.

This podcast is just a start to the essential questions of modern education, which Dan and Michael will carry forward in an upcoming Part 2 interview with Dan Bozzuto.

Student Success Podcast No. 27, published July 19, 2016 (recorded on Aug 9, 2015).

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See also:

Kirkland College – Hamilton College page (relevant text reads: “Kirkland brought women to College hill along with a more diverse lifestyle and an innovative philosophy of teaching.“)


Host: Michael L. Bromley
Original Music by Christopher Bromley (copyright 2011-2016) Background snoring by Stella.
Best Dogs Ever: by Puck, Stella, & Artemis

Massive snoring by Stella in this episode!

Uhm, it’s 6:00, where’s our supper? The dogs have impeccable inner clocks!

Here for Puck & Stella slideshow






Michael: Thrilled tonight, I’ve got Dan Bozzuto. I’ve long wanted to have him on the podcast. He and I have conversations about these about this stuff all the time, but I just never recorded it. So, Dan, now you’re on the record, dude.
Dan: The pressure’s on.
Michael: No, no, its just on the record. We will of course hold this against you, and perhaps resent you, but you’re free to say anything you want, and I will note the things that you do not say.
Dan: I look forward to saying everything, then, because I don’t want you taking note!
Michael: Dan and I taught together back in my teaaching days, and we grew up as teachers together, so I’m thrilled to have this conversation with him on the record!
Dan: I stayed in the teacher profession, whereas Bromley decided to go a different route. I teach at a Charter school in Washington DC.
Michael: And, can I say this, you’re on track to become an administrator.
Dan: Working towards it. Got some work to do, but working to it
Michael: Thus my contention that we can, one, hold this against you, and two, resent it.
Dan: Right, no visual cues, I’m shrugging my shoulders.
Michael: But you’re going on the dark side!
Dan: Let’s see where this goes before you hold this against me.
Michael: So to clarify, you could become an administrator?
Dan: I could become an administrator, I can not become one today.
Michael: And you are studying to become an one. That is possible. But you are a classroom teacher now.
Dan: Correct.
Michael: What I want to clarify here is, do we cloud this discussion through your potential future administrative career.
Dan: Well, if you want to understand the bias of the conversation. My experience as a classroom teacher has been largely as a classroom teacher that existed as an island.The success and failures that I have had existed entirely with what I have done. And I have very seldom come across w/ an institution that facilitated and supported teacher success in an institutionalized way.
Michael: So you are not replicable?
Dan: I don’t know if you can make a cookie-cutter effective teacher. I feel fundamentall there are some characteristics of personality, rapport, relatability that cannot be taught, acquired.
Michael: So if you, again, conjecture here, if you were ever to become an administrator, you would accept the fact that great teaching is not replicabble?
Dan: If I were to become an administrator I would accept the fact that teachers are the most important interface a school has and the teachers need to be supported in their efforts. And some teachers want to be great, can be great but don’t know how to be great and need a little encouragement. Other teachers can be good, and will be good if pushed, and other teachers might be absolutely terrible and you can get them up to adequate with appropriate coaching.
Michael: I think this is the makings of a great future administrator. As I see it, in a lot of schools we work with, and we’re seeing schools systems through the kids in our A+ Club program, I get the sense that there’s a downward push to a lower comomon denominator in terms of what they expect from teachers. And clearly, and btw, regular listeners will know that that is Stella is going to snore through the session, and that’s her snoring in the background.So you’re saying that teachers can become better, great teachers need to be left alone, is that what you’re saying?
Dan: Not necessarily that great teachers need to be left alone, but great teachers need to be allowed to be great. Now, great teachers can be made into mediocre teachers under certain constraints.
What everyone is saying now is that Common Core is the deathknell of the American public education system as we currently understand it. I want to make a distinction to the listeners that Common Core does not necessitate testing, testing, the assessment of Common Core, isn’t actually in the Common Core legislation. It simply says, heh, schools should teach basic skills that I think everyone when looking at those skills would agree that people should have by the time they graudate from high school. Can you read an argument and understand the point it is tyring to make and maybe think of a counter point. I want my high school graduates to be able to do that.
The problem is that w/ No Child Left Behind, in order to standardize and assess that these skills are being taught, people across the country write tests, and to make sure that the kids are learning the skills, measured by the test, the teachers then take their kids and say, I can teach you the skills or I can teach you the test. It’s great if you have the skills, but I keep my job if you pass the test. So I’m going to teach you for the test. I’m going to prepare for the test. The test is going to be the end all and be all of our existence here, becuase if you don’t preform on that, then I’m not performing as a teacher, regardless of how much you learn, regerdless of how many skills you acquire, regardless of the nuance of thought that you are capable of demonstrating, because that doesn’t matter becuase if you can’t demonstrate that on a test, regardless if you were feeling sick that day, or you don’t care about a test, or whatever reason may get in the way of a student actually performing on a given assessment on one particular day, that will determine my efficacy as a teacher.
Michael: OK, so a student success can’t be measured by a static snapshot that is the test. But are you sure there is no value in those tests?
Dan: There is value in those tests. Is there as much value as we are currently placing on those test? That’s debatable.
Michael: So what I’m hearing you say is that those tests do not measure teaching, is that correct?
Dan: OK, this is where we’re going to hit the slipperly slope. If a teacher is not teaching, clearly, the kids, theoretically. shouldn’t do any better on the test. So, if the teacher is teaching, one should, logically, deduce that the kids would do better on the tests.
Michael: Depending on what they’re teaching.
Dan: Maybe we need to erase the word test from the lexicon. We need to, somehow, if a teacher is teaching thinking skills, and I wouldn’t know how you would test that, but perhaps extended conversations with the person would reveal that the student has in fact learned how to think coherently, articulate thoughts, propose arguments. Maybe they could think really well, but they write really slowly, or, as alot of the new tests, have to be typed, you can’t text it, you have to use the home keys which aren’t taught in schools anymore. So you have a timed test, where you have to type on a keyboard, and I’ve seen this as I proctor these tests, and you will see two index fingers carefully moving around the keyboard looking for the letters, typing an essay, so what are the factors that test actually measures?
Michael: This is great, becuase, I always contend with kids, for example, so grades are a product of alot of things, but they are not necessarily the product of learning. Where grades are effective measures of student outcomes, then they are effective measures of learning. And that’s hard to come by becuase kids are measured on alot of things such as did you put your name on a piece of paper. So you’re saying that those tests really are just a snapshot measure and are not useful as an interpretation of student success, or more improtantly, of techer success. So I think that’s what we’re really after here, the distinction between effective teachimg.
Dan: My question is, and to all the teachers who listent ot his, and even the students, if you pulled up a grade sheet for a class, and if you pick any one assignment at random, does that assignment clearly and adequately summarize your learning performance and demonstration of knowledge in that particular subject. Can one assignment do that?
Michael Okay, right, it can, possibly. So what’s the alternative.
Dan: You can absolutely measure student learning. It requires mulitiple data points over extended periods of time, measuring very specific skills. Student learning can be measured, and if you take snapshots — so here’s the thing, so let’s talk about these standardized tests. If you take a snapshot of a student, let’s just say just a student in 8th grade is reading at a 5th grade reading level.  You take that snapshot, you learn that that 8th grader is reading at the 5th grade level. Passes, gets to high school. Now, that is a 9th grade student, at the end of the 9th grade year, now the student is reading at the 8th grade level. So we have two snapshots. If you look at the snapshot individually, and you look at the 9th grade snapsot, that 9th grade student is reading at the 8th grade level, that student is not proficient in the skills that shoould be. That teacher by that single snapshot has failed that student. You look at that snapshot compared to the snapshot the year before where he was at a 5th grade level, and you see that he has improved 3 years of reading level in 1 year, then you realize that teacher and that student have made incredible progress. So snapshots are not useful, just like you can’t look at the stockmarket in one day and clearly know what everything is worth, you have to look at trends. Looking at one particular test, one particular assignment, is not a reasonable assessment of student understanding, learning, performance, progress, anything.
Michael: Or teacher ability.
Dan: Or teacher ability.
Michael: Which is where we started on this thing. Yes, I’m with you on that, we need to have trends, which is the key word here, which way you’re trending. And btw, a lot of education policy is based on these snapshots, your 4th grade standardized tests, your versus your 8th grade tests, and all the research based on these things. And you’re saying they’re leaving alot of this stuff out. That might be a problem.
Dan: A lot of schools these days really don’t focus, a lot of urban schools I’m aware of, and I don’t have these statistics in front of me, so bear with me and feel free to google anything I say just to fact check me. A lot of schools now focus on what they call Adequate Yearly Progress, abbreviated AYP. Understanding that the performance of these schools are probably not going to be up to standardized grade level, but what they are looking for is that students are consistently improving while they are in that school. And the schools can kinda get a pass that way, just to kind of prove that while students are in that school, they are getting value added to their education, they are acquiring some skills, which is better than nothing.
Michael: Does this approach the type of assessment you want, which is trends?
Dan: In a way yes In a way AYP, but the problem is, well, if you improve a student an arbitrary unit of measure one year, we expect you to improve the exact same arbitrary unit of measure plus some the next year, well, that may not be feeasible, that may not be a reasonable assessment. If that arbitrary mark is not met, what should the consequence be? If teachers have added some learning to a student, but not as much as that arbitrary standard says they should have learned, who should get punished? Should the teacher lose their job, salary, be put on probation if the student performed well but not as well as some statistical calculation calculated that student should have performed
Michael: Right. Let’s step back here a second. These assessment systems are in place and they are inadequate, I think everybody agrees to that, it’s just a matter of what you want to place your faith in. But you as a teacher, how do you want to be measured, and then let’s ask the question if you were a potential administrator, would you apply that same measurement to other teachers?
Dan: This is one of the hardest things about education. This is why everyone thinks they can be an educator because it is very very difficult to meaasure the success of a teacher. I think we all can think back to the teachers in our lives that have had the most influence on our educational experience. The
teachers they have either, we hated the most, or the ones we loved the most that we can remember the most fondly. Why is that?  Is that because they prepared you so well for a test, or is that becuase they imparted real knowlege upon you? Or is that becuase they caused you to think in a different way? What caused that?
Now, thinking about that, if you can get the answer to that, how do you quantify what that teacher gave you? This is the problem. Teachers need to be held accountable. When you have a standardized system for holidng teachers accountable, teachers are not all the same, students are not all the same, so to assume that every teacher should do the same thing with every student is an erroneous assumption.
Something is called Cambpell’s Law, and Cambell’s Law simply says, the act of telling a person or a teacher that you are going to measure a certain aspect of their performance will thus change the outcome of the measurement. If teachers know that they are going to be assessed on, what arbitrary measurement, student attendance, I can’t imagine a school district that would do that, but I’m not going to put it beyond some school districts to make teachers pick up every kid and drive them to school. It might happen.
Michael: No, it would happen.
Dan: Let’s just say a teacher is going to be assessed as effective or ineffective based on student attendance, you can best believe that that teacher will be giving ten dollar bills to every student who shows up to class on time becuase that will ensure the teacher keeps their job.  Did the kids learn anything? No. Did they learn the value of being punctual? No. Did they learn how to be punctual for this one instance? Yes. So when we have these tests, these static pieces, where so much depends on, the teacher’s job, the salary depends on it, the school itself depends on it, because if school scores stay consistently low the school isn’t going to stay open. So we have the teachers depend on those test scores, then we have the administrators who also work at that school, they depend on those test scores, then we have all the stakeholders, the parents depend on those test scores because parents don’t want to send their kids to a school that is deemed failing or is about to close. So, there are so many people who care about the results of these tests but not for the right reasons. They do not care if the kids are learning. They care if the kids perform well, so they get the outcome that is desired which isn’t learning but good perfomance on a standardized test. As soon as we start measuring things like that, we negate the system.
What would be wrong with having standards like, I don’t know, a student can read and understand. And just say, heh, make sure your kids can read and understand. And may be we don’t need to necessarily assess. And a teacher, this is such a poorly worded, pedagogicaly unsound standard, but I think you can understand what I mean by this, if you want students to be able to read and comprehend what the passage is about, there are so many ways to teach that skill I can’t even possibly count. I can’t standardize that. If we just say, heh, this is the goal we are going to do. and we as teaching professionals act in good faith, we are going to work towards this and do everything we can to do that, maybe we don’t need yearly tests to do that, and we just need a professional and collaborational environment to make sure that when people go into your classroom they don’t need a test to see that kids are learning, but they can see what’s happening in a classroom, they can see students are engaged or disengaged, whatever, and they can judge the efficiacy of teachers on that and they don’t need necessarily standardized tests. That way we can be actually be focused on learning. which is the outcome, instead of being focused on a test, which becomes the outcome.
Michael: Absolutley, A couple things that come to mind on that. The first thing is that standards are necessary. For example, the college I went to, Hamilton College, had a sister school called Kirkland, Hamilton was an all boys school, Kirkland was an all girls school. And Kirkland was going to outdo the boys school and rechange, reformulate education, so there’d be no grades. So each kid would get an assessment from their professor. It would be a sort of subjective summary of everything the student accomplished, and would go through all the outcomes that the teacher wanted and how the student peformed accordingly, but it would not be measured by a specific grade.
Now the problem with this is that those kids would graduate and to go an employer and say, what was your GPA at school? And they’d pull out a file that was 800 pages long and say here’s my teachers assessment. There was a problem with that interfacce with the rest of the world becuase the world does need a GPA at some level. I don’t personally, I don’t know how you fell, but I believe that GPAs are useful. The problem with GPA’s of corse, is that GPAs are subjective. So what I’m saying here is that, yes, those types of measurements of student peformance and teacher performance need to have some sort of common denominator in which to measure them against. And it’s got to be useful and, frankly, something you can see on a graph.
Dan: I fundamentally disagree with everything you just said. What is the purpose of grades? Is the purpose of grades to actually represent what a student has learned in a particular class, or is the purpose of a grade to provide motivation for a student to engage in that class?
Michael: Well, no, a grade is just a measurement of outcomes. In my view a grade measures a static outcome. I always thought, as a kid growing up, actually, I always felt that, well, what is the point of a test if we’re supposed to learn and the test measures that we diddn’t learn and we stop there, that makes no sense. But, in that view, it’s like, okay, well, if the test measures that you didn’t learn, then you need to continue your learning, whereas the problem was that we didn’t continue the learning and we just stopped there and moved on to the next subject. I always felt that tests and grades are relevant because it measures learning, but I don’t think that should ever be the stopping point.
Dan: I just think we need to change the paradigm, to use an educationally fashionable word, we need to change the pardigm of how we view education. We are so obsessed with grades, tests, assessment, ranking performance, etc, etc. etc. What if college applications or application processes weren’t essays, weren’t test scores, but like, heh, come, meet with us and do this skill in front of me right now.  Here’s an aricle. I want you to read, summarize and argue for and against it right here in front of me. Can you do that? Can you peform the basic skills?
Some students to have that level of proficiency in that particular skill may have needed to work countless hours in high school to have acquired that school, and other students may not have. End result, once you leave school, the world only cares abuot can you or can’t you do said skill?  Why do we need to go ahead and conform ourselves and conform ourselves to an essentially arbitrary unit of measure that we understand blurs the measure that we are actually trying to take.
Michael: I got to say that the system is set up precisely to be arbitrary. But that’s whole another topic here. That’s a mind blowing idea. In other words, college admission is based up, say, a job interview, like you would to get a job, quite literally, here’s my resume and you go through this process of interviews. And frankly the interview at the college admission process is meaningless, it’s entirely meaningless. You’re on to something strong. Again, I still fall back on that you still need some comparative point. If it’s going to be on that interivew or that question, then you have to measure that in some way to compare one and another. Am I missing your point here?
Dan: I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that skills and outcomes need to be measured, determined in ways that we are not currently measuring and determining in our society. And my little example of the college acceptance interview, or performance assessment, if you will, for our education folk listening to this, may be somewhat extreme, but the end result is, what better way to demonstrate a skill than doing that skill in a real world applciation. Maybe we need to move away from these abstract tests. When do you ever take a test in your life after education? I can’t think of a time unless you’re going to be in education and then you have to take a test to go ahead and prove that you can be a teacher to prepare the kids for the tests that you inevitably took to get into education.
Michael: Well, hold on, you’re a science guy, so someone wants to get into chemistry, on the job, so you got to know certain elements of chemistry in order to function on this job, I mean, that would be a test unto itself would it not? Would you want to measure somebody coming in as to their ability to to actually understand that concept?
Dan: In theory, the test of reading of the article and arguing both sides could have been a hand-written test you could have done in English class. But the fact that it was done in person in front of you can really show if the person gets it, you can see how the person interacts, you can see the process of it. It’s all completely inefficient.
Michael: Actually, I disgree, I think it’d be a hell of a lot more efficent that this whole SAT, ACT college application process that we have, which is kind of like the tax code, it becomes it’s own beast, it just consumes itself, and consumes so much activity and hours and money, especially. I think your solution would be far more effecive, it’d just be a direct relationship between a kid and a college and make that decision based on on how they feel about them.
Dan: But then, all the exact same problems that I said about the standardized tests would then be supplanted to these interviews. What if the kid has a bad day and doesn’t actually demonstrate their abilities effectively in that one performance? What if kids understand that the only thing they’re going to do is to figure out the question they ask and they hack the computer system they asked the day before and then prepare for that question in advance without actually understanding the skills of reading, summarizing comprehending, arguing etc.
There are flaws to the system. So what we as a society, as a country need to ask ourselves is what is the goal of education? Is the goal to have an informed citizenry that can engage in intellectual discourse about the affairs of the world? Is the goal of education to produce workers? Is the goal of eduation to produce people who go to college and amass enormous amounts of debt? What is the goal of education?
Michael: This always leads us back to, then, what is the role of the teacher in that whole process and how do we measure that teacher’s performance?